- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the nation was embroiled in the now infamous war on drugs. It was a war waged globally with one of the distinct goals of the war being to prohibit potentially fatal, illegal substances from hitting our streets. In 2003, the nation faces a new war on drugs that is similar in many ways to the drug wars of the past.

This latest war on drugs does not involve international drug kingpins, marquee drug busts and clandestine networks of drug dealers. This latest war is the battle to keep unregulated prescription drugs from being reimported en masse for purchase by American consumers.

The danger is that drugs reimported from other nations may not be subject to stringent testing and safety standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These standards are directly responsible for the U.S. being a leader in developing medical breakthroughs that improve the lives of many Americans with serious medical problems. If these quality controls go unenforced on freely imported drugs, consumer risks can range from dangerous side effects to death.

In this war, however, there is a strong contingent within the United States that favors of prescription drug importation becoming more common. This contingent includes senior citizens, low-income workers, and those with limited health-care coverage. Their argument is understandable: Many current drugs on the market are not affordable, and therefore those who need them are open to other options.

In fact, many Americans commute to Canada to purchase their prescription drugs. They are joined by health-care providers whose bottom lines would benefit greatly from an influx of lower-priced drugs.

Further, the House voted during the summer in favor of H.R. 2472, endorsing the reimportation of drugs from 24 industrialized nations. The Senate has proposed a compromise as a part of the latest bill on Medicare that would allow drug reimportation only from Canada and would impose FDA regulations on these drugs to assure quality.

For many, it seems an easy decision to support drug reimportation if it lowers costs for medicines produced in this country. However, the consequences can be very dangerous.

The loss of this legislative battle could open door to a dangerous prescription-drugs subculture. When the FDA quality controls are not in effect, we risk counterfeit versions of recognized medication becoming widely available.

In short, allowing the unregulated traffic of prescription drugs is not the right way to secure more affordable prescription drugs.

The solution is twofold with a responsibility shared by our lawmakers, insurance providers and the major pharmaceutical companies.

First, the prescription drug benefit must be passed as part of any current or future substantive health-care legislation. The lack of such a benefit is what has led many seniors to Canada and other sources for the prescription drugs they cannot afford in America. Insurance providers also must revisit some of the restrictions on their clients, which limit the availability of potentially life-saving medication on the basis of cost.

Finally, the prescription drug companies must continue to strike a balance between the need for affordable to medication on the consumer side with their desire to research and develop new, innovative treatments.

America’s newest drug war — against infusion of unregulated reimported prescription drugs — is one that we must fight vigilantly because the stakes could be fatal.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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